Chadwick Boseman on Playing Baseball Great Jackie Robinson in ’42’

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Before he took on the title role in “Black Panther,” Chadwick Boseman had the honor of portraying baseball great Jackie Robinson in “42.” With Hollywood being the way it is, you would expect to see studio executives insisting on a getting a big time movie star to portray the famous baseball legend, but writer/director Brian Helgeland got away with casting Boseman back when he was relatively unknown to audiences at large. An actor and playwright by training, Boseman started to burn into our collective consciousness with this performance.

Filmmakers and actors over the years like Spike Lee and Denzel Washington have tried and tried to bring the story of Robinson to the big screen but with no success. It took Helgeland, who won an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay to “L.A. Confidential,” to finally succeed in making such a film a reality. The burning question is how did Boseman get the role of Robinson over so many others? There must have been thousands upon thousands of actors desperate to play the legendary ballplayer, and there is something very inspiring about a lesser known actor beating out a bunch of big-name stars for this opportunity. Boseman, during an interview with Julie Miller of Vanity Fair, explained how he got cast.

“I had left L.A. for a few months, and I was directing a play Off Broadway in the East Village,” Boseman told Miller. “I came back to Los Angeles for a visit and was supposed to go back to New York on a Friday, and my agent said, ‘No, they want to see you for 42. For the Jackie Robinson film.’ I met with 42 director Brian Helgeland, and I knew that I would love to work with him. He’s an Oscar winner and a great writer but also, the way that he works, you know sometimes that you can vibe with a person and that you will work well together.”

“The additional meeting was great. A lot of it was just talking about the role and project and why he wanted to do it,” Boseman continued. “I left thinking that it was a great audition but didn’t necessarily know if I would get it. The next week, they called me back in again, and I could tell that he was trying to show me to somebody else. They were taping it and saying stuff like ‘What else might they want to see?’ I realized at that point that I was Brian’s choice, so I was just trying to prove it.”

Before “42” came along, Boseman had been working a lot in television and appeared on shows like “ER,” “Law & Order” and “CSI: NY.” Eventually, he started starring in movies such as “The Express” among others. Surprisingly though, Boseman did not originally set out to be an actor. A graduate of Howard University and the British American Dramatic Academy at Oxford, he saw his career heading in a different direction.

“When I started in theater and film, I thought I would be a director,” Boseman said. “The only reason that I started acting was because I felt like I needed to understand what the actors were doing and their process so that I could better guide them. During the course of that, I caught the acting bug. But once I finished my acting training, I still was thinking I would be a writer/director. I don’t really think I focused on acting until I came to L.A. in 2008. That’s when it got serious for me.”

As a kid, Boseman played Little League baseball for a time, but he was more serious about playing basketball after a while. When it comes to sports movies, most directors prefer actors to have some sort of experience in baseball or whatever sport their film is about. It looks like Boseman had just about enough experience to show he could play Robinson, but he still had to go through a lot of baseball training in order to prepare for the role before the cameras started rolling. He related his training regimen to Eric Alt of Athlon Sports as well as the challenges he faced during pre-production.

“All the coaches I worked with concentrated on the way he did things,” Boseman told Alt. “They studied his swing, and I studied his swing on my own. We would tape batting practice and they would film me base running, and then every two or three weeks they would take his footage and split-screen it with mine and give it to me and let me compare. We did that for almost five months.”

“The fielding was much more difficult than the batting,” Boseman continued. “I’m a natural athlete, so I have the hand-eye coordination to hit the ball. But the fielding? The footwork? Understanding where to throw the ball from, depending on where you receive it? I just wish there was more of it in the movie because I worked so hard on it! (laughs) When I saw the movie I was like, ‘Man, that’s all? That’s it?'”

The cast and crew of “42” also had a great asset in having the participation of Jackie’s widow, Rachel Robinson. It turns out Rachel was very much involved in looking over different drafts of the screenplay, and it gave the film a genuine legitimacy it might otherwise not have had. Boseman told Miller he began his preparation for the role by talking to Rachel.

“When you’re trying to tackle a hurricane, or something larger than life, I knew that the first thing I had to do was talk to her,” Boseman said. “She gave me some books. She sat me down on the couch and told me about their relationship and the rules that they set for themselves to get through the experience. That was a great start, because you are meeting someone who is still connected to him and you get a sense of him when you meet her. You see what kind of a man could actually stand by her. Who is this guy that she would fall for?”

“In some sense, you got the sense of the edges of him, like the two of them were a puzzle. She is one piece and his piece is not here, but I can feel the edges from her,” Boseman continued. “She started the journey, definitely. She showed up on set. And she challenged me by asking me why I should play him. That’s a good place to start because you have to start with yourself.”

While Chadwick Boseman must have felt a great deal of pressure in bringing the legendary Jackie Robinson to life in “42,” he did deliver a terrific performance which had audiences applauding loudly when the credits come up. Acting may not have been Boseman’s first choice as a profession, but it is certainly working out for him in a great way.

SOURCES:

Julie Miller, “42 Star Chadwick Boseman on Playing Jackie Robinson, Copying His Baseball Moves, and Being Stood Up by the President,” Vanity Fair, April 12, 2013.

Eric Alt, “A Chat with Chadwick Boseman, Star of Jackie Robinson Biopic ’42,’” Athlon Sports, April 19, 2013.

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Black Panther’ Gives Us One of the Best Superheroes Yet

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Complain all you want about the proliferation of superhero/comic book movies, the last year or so has given us some of the best. In 2017 we got “Logan” which saw Wolverine freed from his PG-13 shackles to where Hugh Jackman and James Mangold gave the “X-Men” character the sendoff he truly deserved. Then came “Wonder Woman” which not only filled our need for a female-led superhero movie, but also succeeded in putting the DC Extended Universe on the right track (of course, then “Justice League” arrived). And with “Thor: Ragnarok,” Marvel Studios allowed themselves to turn this particular franchise upside down and inside out, and what resulted was the most entertaining “Thor” movie yet.

Now it’s 2018 and we have “Black Panther.” You could say it provides audiences with the long overdue African-American-led superhero movie, but having watched it, this description is not entirely appropriate. T’Challa, the Black Panther of this movie, is a hero for everyone. Like Steve Rogers/Captain America, this is a character whose desire to do good in the world comes across with a powerful sincerity which no amount of cynicism can possibly take away. Along with confident direction, terrific performances and slam-bang action, “Black Panther” proves to be one of the best superhero/comic book movies ever made, a true high point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the best movies of 2018.

As I write this review, “Black Panther” has been in general release for several weeks and has held the number one spot at the box office for as many times as James Cameron’s “Avatar” did. Clearly you have all seen it at least two or three times by now, so let’s not even bother with a plot description. Let’s just talk about what makes this particular Marvel Studios release so awesome.

Kudos to Ryan Coogler who has now graduated from low and medium-budgeted movies to full on Hollywood blockbusters with tremendous confidence. With “Fruitvale Station” he made us look at the life and tragic death of Oscar Grant in such a powerful way to where he can never be dismissed as a mere statistic. With “Creed” he brought a freshness and energy to the long running “Rocky” franchise which I never could have expected. Now with “Black Panther,” he has given us a movie which supersedes others of its genre to an outstanding degree as he combines the typical spectacle that comes with $200 million budget, and he combines it with a strong story filled with complex characters to where you cannot walk out of this one and say this was just an average motion picture.

Kudos to Chadwick Boseman for inhabiting T’Challa/Black Panther in a way to where there is no doubt he has the world’s best interests at heart, not just Wakanda’s. Through ferocity and feeling, Boseman makes T’Challa into a true hero for everyone and anyone. While this character has doubts about whether or not he is truly ready to be Wakanda’s king, something I have truly come to loathe about origin movies, Boseman never imbues him with the kind of hesitation which would easily destroy another. When the time comes to defend his people, he is most definitely up front and center.

Kudos to Michael B. Jordan for his performance as N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens. N’Jadaka serves as the chief antagonist in “Black Panther,” but the character is not so much a villain as he is a victim. Jordan makes you see how N’Jadaka was wronged and of why his need for revenge is understandable if not condonable. This character was wronged and abandoned, so his bitterness at what was denied to him ends up feeling justified even when it poisons his soul. We root for N’Jadaka to fail, but we cannot help but feel empathy for him, and Jordan ends up creating a complex villain who can never be mistaken for some one-dimensional schmuck.

Kudos to every single actress in “Black Panther” as they give us badass Wakandans who refuse to run away from impending danger. Whether it’s Angela Bassett as Ramonda or Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, they fill their characters with a strength and pride which can be wounded, but never easily broken. Special mention goes out to Danai Gurira who steals every scene she has as Okoye, a proud Wakandan who wears her pride on her face for all to see. If you threaten Okoye and she pulls a saber out on you, Gurira makes it clear you best start running in the other direction.

Kudos to Martin Freeman for making his character of CIA officer Everett K. Ross more than just mere comic relief. Even when we see him stumbling about in the midst of warriors who are prepared for conflict, Freeman allows Everett to evolve into a far more capable agent than he was at the movie’s beginning.

Kudos to Andy Serkis for his go for broke performance as gangster Ulysses Klaue. It’s a blast watching the “Planet of the Apes” actor smash through everything in his path. But even though he is not doing a motion capture performance here like he has done unforgettably in the past, he probably won’t snag an Oscar nomination for his work here anyway.

Kudos to Forest Whitaker for not just making Zuri a powerful religious and spiritual figure, but for also letting us see the cracks in the character’s façade when he reveals a burden he can never forgive himself for. Whether you see Zuri as “Black Panther’s” Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi, Whitaker lets us know right from the start no one could play Zuri better than he could.

Kudos to Daniel Kaluuya, currently riding high off of the tremendous success of “Get Out,” for making W’Kabi, T’Challa’s best friend, a vivid study of internal conflicts which are constantly pushed in different directions to where common sense can be thoughtlessly tossed aside.

Kudos to Winston Duke for making M’Baku into a ruthless warrior, but also one with a deep conscience. This character could have existed simply as a plot device for “Black Panther” to take advantage of when the going gets tough, but when T’Challa and his closest friends plead with M’Baku to join them in their battle of resistance, Duke makes the character’s eventual decision believable without ever seeming predictable or convoluted.

And kudos to all those filmmakers and artists behind the scenes who made Wakanda look so beautiful in “Black Panther.” Of all the places the Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to, this is the one I would like to visit the most. Wakanda forever? Damn straight!

Seriously, I cannot say enough great things about “Black Panther” as Coogler and company have made a film which was so well-thought out and put together. All the characters are complex and interesting, and what could have been just another superhero/comic book movie was elevated into something far more thrilling than I ever could have expected. But more importantly, “Black Panther” gives us a true superhero who everyone, and I mean everyone, can and should look up to. This, among other reasons, should explain why this movie has been such a box office behemoth since its release.

Even better, we won’t have to wait long to see this superhero again as he will appear in “Avengers: Infinity War” whose release is just around the corner.

* * * * out of * * * *